|3 Nov 2021
The annual commemoration service was led at the end of term on October 21st by Mrs Henderson, Head of History, who is planning for the 150th anniversary, in 2022, of the establishment of The Ladies’ College. It was an opportunity to unveil new portraits, restored and enlarged from old photographs in the archives, of two past principals of The Ladies’ College, Miss F.A. Gilbert and Miss V.A. Prain.
Mrs Henderson said, “As we prepare for our special celebration next year, our sesquicentennial, I am thrilled that two more of the women to whom the College owes so much are restored to our collective memory.”
The first new portrait to be unveiled was that of Miss Gilbert, Principal from 1883 to 1900. It is directly to her that College can trace the tradition of red carnations as the College flower for special occasions; in her day there was no uniform but on Speech Day the girls wore their flowers on white dresses.
From the archives, we can get a glimpse of what Miss Gilbert was like. By all accounts, she really was what you might imagine of a strict Victorian Principal, a god-fearing teacher who enforced silence rigorously and was keen in Saturday morning detentions. But we mustn’t paint too ill a portrait of her in our minds; she established the kindergarten for the smallest members of our community. The tiny children evidently loved her and she was fondly remembered at the time of her death in 1922 as someone who valued above all courage and truth.
The second restored portrait unveiled was that of Miss Prain, looking very much the modern woman of the era, a dynamic teacher who came to Guernsey from England and served as Principal for six years from 1929-1935. In that time, she drove a number of changes including updating the curriculum and modernising the uniform (which had been introduced in 1915) to bring it up-to-date. Skirt lengths were 4 inches from the floor when kneeling down; these girls were no doubt influenced by the flapper fashions of the 1920s! It is also to Miss Prain we owe the tradition of red sashes or girdles, which are now given as part of the Guild Ambassador award.
Mrs Henderson also spent a few minutes considering the career of the woman who served as Principal in the era between these two, Miss Alice Mellish, Principal from 1901 to 1929, whose efforts were formative in sustaining and improving the College in the early twentieth century. Her portrait has long been proudly on display in the College hall. Profound social changes are evident over the course of her career; when she was appointed, she was forbidden from reading aloud her principal’s report on Speech Day, a public task deemed only suitable for a male. For women of that era, it was not possible to marry and have a family and to maintain a career. Miss Mellish gave her life’s efforts to The Ladies’ College and, importantly, to the development of education on the Island more generally. She was a gifted scholar, articulate and erudite, but also practical and with a huge sense of fun. She loved celebrating her birthday each year with a fancy dress party with the pupils. Even in her retirement, she re-joined the College in Denbigh in Wales during the evacuation. She was a tiny woman, softly spoken, hardworking and with clear ideas about discipline but always with a twinkle in her eye. She always wore her academic gown which was known for being quite tattered and though it is said she could command the assembly hall into silence by a just look- the one in her portrait. In our Commemoration Service, we give thanks for her and for all those whose have served our community.
Mrs Henderson also gave some insight to the months before the College’s opening, when Guernsey was abuzz with chatter about this controversial idea. The Rev. John Oates (born 1824) then the Principal of Elizabeth College, gave a public address at Clifton Hall in March 1872 on the proposal.
He was in favour of the idea being proposed by, as he put it “influential ladies of this Island” to elevate female education. Nevertheless, Rev. Oates also said that there had been “a good deal of foolish talk… in discussing what are absurdly called the rights of women”. After expounding on this theme for a while he went on to reassure Islanders concerned about this proposed institution that, "For example, no sane person would argue that... athletic sports would be suitable for girls. We should never dream of introducing into girls’…colleges champion’s belts for high leaping, hurdle racing, throwing the hammer...”
He continued in this vein for some time… and, of course, it is a measure of how much the world has changed that not only those activities but even the likes of skating-boarding are part of the PE opportunities for students here today.
As the College prepares to celebrate, to look backwards as well as forwards, we know that our College sprang from traditions established a generation earlier at Cheltenham Ladies’ College under the famous Miss Beale a woman of considerable renown in British history. Our founding principal, Miss Susan Eaton, was from her staff, and part of a pioneering generation of women who established girls’ schools across the British Isles and the world.
The Ladies’ College Guernsey is part of that tradition. We are also an Island school. Through the archives, many of more of which will be widely available to access on-line by this time next year as part of a digitisation programme, it is clear how being in this location shapes College life. We have wonderful descriptions of swimming events from before World War II, down at the bathing pools; generations of College girls have sketched and measured and recorded the coastlines in Geography and Art; trips off the island- whether it is Miss Mellish taking groups of girls cycling round Belgium or recent Duke of Edinburgh expeditions are College rites of passage. Over the past 18 months in the era of a pandemic, it has at times felt like the sea surrounding us, cutting us off from the mainland, has been, to use Shakespeare’s famous line from Richard II, serving in “the office of a wall/ Or as a moat defensive”
Mrs Henderson concluded, “We are here together today, on this Island, celebrating 149 years since a leap of faith, a leap into the future was taken by our College founders. You are all part of that story and whether you have lived in Guernsey your whole life or, like me, an incomer who has settled on these shores from somewhere else, you are a valued part of this College. You will all have ways to get involved in celebrating our sesquicentennial next year- in projects in Art, Music, PE, Drama and beyond.”
To finish with a phrase from the speech made six months before the College doors opened for the first time, “Our desire is that those who teach and those who learn should be equally impressed with the truth that, after all, their main object should be to make intellectual culture not the end of the students’ journey but the road- a stepping stone.”
LCpl Emily McClean left The Ladies' College in 2016 to join the Royal Marines service. More...